California City Faces Lawsuit for Bowing to 'Ahistorical, Anti-Catholic Bigotry'

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

As Black Lives Matter and antifa rioters have targeted statues of Catholic Saint Junipero Serra across California, the City of Ventura decided to cave in advance of any unrest, removing statues of the saint and even deciding to scrub depictions of him from the county seal and city police badges. The Thomas More Society is threatening legal action against the City of Ventura unless it restores the statue and drops its assault on his depictions.

“Instead of pushing back against this ahistorical, anti-Catholic bigotry, the City of Ventura published a letter stating that it ‘believe[d] the time has come for the [Fr. Serra] statue to be taken down and moved to a more appropriate non-public location,'” Thomas More Society Special Counsel Charles LiMandri and Jeffrey Trissell write in the demand letter.

“The First Amendment affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. The government must neither abdicate its responsibility to maintain a division between church and state nor evince a hostility to religion by disabling the government from, in some ways, recognizing our religious heritage,” the letter argues, citing the recent Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020).

Who was Junipero Serra?

A native of Petra Mallorca in Spain, Junipero Serra was a renowned scholar who gave up his academic career to become a missionary in North America. Serra founded the first nine mission churches in California, many of which would form the cores of what became the state’s biggest cities, such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

While many activists today demonize Serra for spreading Roman Catholicism, claiming that his missions destroyed Native American culture, Serra advocated for the rights of native peoples, at one point drafting a 33-point “bill of rights” for the Native Americans living in the mission settlements. He walked all the way from California to Mexico City to present the bill of rights to the viceroy.

Many of the natives he converted wept and mourned him upon his death in 1784.

Pope Francis canonized Serra in Washington, D.C. on September 23, 2015, saying, “Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

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The attacks on Junipero Serra

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, rioters attacked statues of Serra across California. Rioters tore down a statue of the saint in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, on June 19. On the same day, another group tore down another Serra statue in Los Angeles. Rioters pulled down and defaced another statue in Sacramento on July 4, inspiring a local Catholic to set up a makeshift shrine to Serra on July 5. Police are investigating as arson a massive fire that devasted the mission church of San Gabriel on July 11.

On June 18, the City of Ventura announced it would remove the statue and move it to a “non-public location.”

A petition to remove the statues and to rename local schools has racked up nearly 12,000 signatures.

The petition condemns Serra as “toxic” and claims that symbols of the saint further “the dehumanization of the Native American community.” It claims that Serra is “often compared to Hitler” and that he “was complicit in the brutal and dehumanizing conquest of native tribes in California.” The petition also quotes a Native American leader who condemned the missions Serra founded as “concentration camps” and “places of death.”

The Ventura City Council received 2,604 pages of anti-Catholic emails and written comments, claiming that Serra stands for “a history of oppression, racism, slavery, rape, and genocide,” was a “proponent of violence and cultural genocide,” is representative of “endemic racism,” and was “racist and cruel,” among many other attacks.

Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone explained that for California Catholics, Serra is “the Apostle of California … the first saint to be canonized on U.S. soil and by the first pope from the Americas.” The Thomas More Society letter argues that attacks on Serra recall the ugly anti-Catholicism of America’s past.

“For all Catholics, the only reasonable way to view the attacks on Fr. Serra is to see them as assaults by those who hate Catholics and who hate that they evangelized native peoples,” the letter claims.

By targeting Serra, the City of Ventura is arguably engaging in unconstitutional religious animus against Roman Catholicism. The city should think twice about it.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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